I’ve long been convinced that running isn’t for me. Asthmatic, clumsy, and years away from finding an effective sports bra, I was certain my body wasn’t built for it. My calves ached, my side hurt, and I slowed to a walk more often than not. On school sports days, I walked the 1500m race with my friends, breaking into a slow jog whenever we passed teachers along the route. I could do other things: lift heavy objects, save goals in football, and walk long distances in big boots. I trusted my body, and knew what it could do. I knew I was not a runner.
Nonetheless, in my teenage years, I tried every few months or so to get into it. I picked a route through the beautiful parks that cover much of the suburban Queensland landscape. I made mix tapes and loaded them onto my MP3 player. I jogged out my front door with the best of intentions. Days later though, I’d find something that needed to be done instead of a planned run, and inevitably break the routine. It was never long before my trainers were back in the cupboard for another few months.
In my early 20s, after less than a year in London, I was the victim of a sexual assault. New to the UK, and without the support network I have now built, I didn’t tell anyone. I pushed it to the back of my head, and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. When it finally came out, to a friend in my kitchen, years later, it knocked me off my feet. I suffered with PTSD and depression, my hair greyed and came out in clumps from the stress, and I struggled to sleep. I couldn’t move past the feeling that my body, the body I had always been sure would be strong enough to fight if it needed to, had given up instead. I couldn’t forgive it. I started to see it as the enemy; it had failed me when I needed it the most, and was now exposing – through dark circles under my eyes, and thinning hair – all that I had kept inside for so long. I hid my body away as much as I could, from everyone around me, and from myself.
In the summer of 2015, two years on from a course of therapy, I was still feeling anxious and disconnected from my body. At a loss, I finally did what, in our final session, I had promised my counsellor I would do. I signed up for a pool membership at the London Fields Lido. I bought a pair of goggles, and dug a swimming costume out from the back of a drawer. I started swimming a couple of times a week. I was slow, and uncoordinated, forever stopping at the end of the lane to let someone else past. But I was alone with my thoughts, not distracted by the radio, or box sets, or work. I paid attention to each individual stroke. Over time, I felt muscles develop and my lung capacity improve. And without much to focus on in those half hour bursts but my own body, I started to identify it as mine again.
I couldn’t move past the feeling that my body, the body I had always been sure would be strong enough to fight if it needed to, had given up instead. I couldn’t forgive it. I started to see it as the enemy
On New Year’s Day this year, a friend convinced me to jog around Clapham Common with her. She (quite literally) ran rings around me. It might have been the Eccles cake and cheese we’d eaten for breakfast, but I stopped frequently, breaking into a jog again only at her urging. A triathlete herself, she convinced me to download the NHS’s Couch to 5k app, and told me I’d be running for 30 minutes without stopping by March. I laughed in her face.
Over the next nine weeks, I pushed my body around the Common, paying attention to my breathing, my pacing, and the placement of my feet. I stumbled on the icy ground, nursed aching muscles, and got through the running only in anticipation of the recovery walks. I cursed my friend, and Laura (the encouraging voice on the app) more than once. But I paid attention to my body, and I started to trust it. To my immense surprise, I started to enjoy it. And then, on 1st March, I ran for 30 minutes without stopping – the final five with an irrepressible grin on my face, as I realised I was going to make it.
After years of treating it as an enemy, my body has become a part of me again. Like it did when I was younger, it aches, and gets out of breath. But I know it better now, and I can push it further. I know what it’s capable of surviving.
I now know, thanks to the therapy, that my body did just what I needed it to do when it was faced with an impossible situation. It protected me the only way it could. So I am looking after it again, as I would a friend. I soak my sore muscles in long baths. I feed it good things – plenty of fresh vegetables, good meat, homemade bread, and cakes. I swim, and practice yoga. And I push it to run, as fast as it can manage.
I trust it, for the first time in a long time, to do what it needs to. And I’m challenging it like never before, because I know it can do things I never believed it could. In my teenage years, I was trying to run because I felt that I should – that I should get fitter, and I should lose weight. Despite the guilt at giving it up so often, feeling that I should wasn’t ever enough. It’s not until this year, driven by no goal other than to simply see what my body could do, that I finally feel like I want to run.